Former Ref Walt Coleman Dishes on the State of Officiating in the NFL

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 25, 2019

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 12: National Football League referee Walt Coleman #65 looks on from the field during a preseason game between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on August 12, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Lions defeated the Steelers 30-17. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

After 30 years on the job, Walt Coleman—"the dean of NFL officials"—worked his last game in January. Of all places, the 67-year-old's swan song took place in Orlando, Florida, at the Pro Bowl. 

Somewhat ironically, some of the Pro Bowl's limited value is in its opportunity to experiment with rules and innovations that could be officially implemented in the future. But don't assume that, just because Coleman's tenure dates back to the Pete Rozelle era, he isn't progressive when it comes to the league's policies and rulebook. 

Rare exceptions notwithstanding, league rules prohibited Coleman from doing media interviews over the last three decades. Best known for handling the infamous Tuck Rule controversy in a 2001 playoff game between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, the former referee is finally free to offer his reflections on that historic moment and his opinions on the current state of the league's officiating. 

When Coleman connected with Bleacher Report this week, he didn't shy away from sharing his perspectives on everything from full-time officials and expanded replay to an additional, eighth official and the catch rule.

But Coleman also took the time to address mistakes that he'll never get over (like robbing Jerry Rice of a record-breaking touchdown catch 26 years ago) as well as hate mail, threats and the Tuck Rule fallout (fun fact: he never worked another Raiders game for the remainder of his career). 

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 12:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shakes hands with referee Walt Coleman #65 as he warms up before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 12, 2017 in Denver, Colo
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Bleacher Report: Why did you decide to retire now?

Walt Coleman: I'm 67 years old, I don't get around quite as well as I did, and I just felt like it was time after 30 years. Getting on airplanes every weekend has become somewhat of a challenge—I have to connect every weekend because they don't have many direct flights [out of Little Rock, Arkansas]. It just felt like it was the appropriate time for me to leave on my terms and not have someone tell me it was time for me to retire.


B/R: With you and Pete Morelli retiring, the league has now lost six veteran referees in a span of a year. Could that be problematic?

Coleman: If you had two last year and then two this year, that's something that probably would be considered more manageable. Obviously four last year and now two, that does make for a little bit more inexperience at the referee position. But they've got guys that refereed in college, they've got great people on their teams with them, so I don't think that's it's going to be that big of an issue.


B/R: Your son, Walter Coleman IV, is an NFL official. Is it as nerve-wracking watching him as a line judge as it is watching your child play in a game?

Coleman: I would much rather officiate a Pittsburgh-Baltimore game than watch Walter officiate any kind of game. Because you're a parent and you want them to do great but you can't do anything to help them. I do critique him, as you can imagine, when I watch his games. And he watches my games and critiques me. So we have a great relationship in that regard. But watching him work, I'm much more nervous than I am when I'm working the games myself.


B/R: I wonder how many fans realize just how much preparation and review goes into being an NFL official. It's not a one-day-a-week job, right?

Coleman: No, no it's not. It takes a lot of time and effort just to keep up with the rules. I've had plays that have happened to me only one time in my entire career, and when that particular play happens you're supposed to get it right. Because there are just so many variables—so many things that can happen in an NFL football game. So you have to constantly spend time working on that. Even right now, when there's basically kind of a dead period, we're taking rules exams in preparation for next season. It's much more time-consuming than what most people think. And, as far as I'm concerned, we're all full-time.


B/R: Then what are your thoughts on full-time officials? Should the league expand that initiative?

Coleman: My personal opinion is the "full-time officials" they have right now is all public relations. It's just the NFL saying they have full-time guys so they can say they have full-time people. I don't think that going to New York and sitting in an office and watching video makes an official any better. I think the only way to get better is working football games at NFL speed and being evaluated based on what happens in an NFL game. And we are full-time. We work all the games. We work the preseason games, we work the regular-season games, we work the playoffs, we work training camps, we go to clinics, we work on the rules year-round, we obviously have to stay in shape. Most guys have trainers. It's a full-time [job]. We don't just pop up on Sundays and screw the games up and disappear and pop up the next Sunday, but that's what a lot of people think. To say that you're going to make somebody full-time so he can go to New York and look at video or go watch college officials work, I think it's just PR. 

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Referee Walt Coleman #65 blows his whistle and signals a call during the Buffalo Bills NFL game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at New Era Field on November 25, 2018 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

B/R: There's a lot of talk this offseason that replay should be expanded. Where do you come down on that?

Coleman: I'm all for them doing whatever they can so that we can get the plays right. I don't like being wrong, and I've sure been in those situations where the rules prevented us from having the opportunity to get it right. And it bothers me that, if a coach doesn't have any challenges left and we screw something up on the field, we can't fix it. So for us, we would love for everything to be reviewable. But I was in the league when they had replay the first time and a replay official was the only one responsible for reviews. They got rid of that because it was all-consuming and the games were lasting longer. So you've got that fine line between "Do you want to get the play right or do you want to have a three-hour game?" And the other problem that they have is all games aren't equal when it comes to replay. You know why?


B/R: The number of replay angles available?

Coleman: Yes, the number of cameras. A normal Sunday afternoon game that kicks off at 1 or 12, they have like nine cameras. A Sunday night game they have 25 or 30 cameras. So if you start reviewing judgment calls, how is it fair when you have 25 cameras and every receiver isolated, and you get a game with nine and they can't have that? So if they made reviewable some of the stuff they're talking about making reviewable, it would put a lot of pressure on the TV networks. That's one of the things that a typical fan doesn't think about. But from an officiating standpoint I think we'd like to have everything reviewable—although I'd have a little bit of trouble with reviewing holding and pass interference just because there are just so many variables involved in that.


B/R: What are your thoughts on the idea of adding an eighth official, either on the field or as a "Sky Judge"?

Coleman: Like I said, all we want to do is get the play right, so the more help we can get, the better. I don't know who they can get to go up there. Who are they going to get to be that Sky Judge to be up there and make those kinds of calls that everybody is going to be comfortable with? One of the problems the NFL has is that we're still working with seven officials. And if you've noticed, in college, everybody's working with eight. And [the AAF is] working with eight. The NFL needs to be working with eight, but the problem is the NFL has got themselves in a box [regarding] where they can put that eighth guy. They need to put the eighth guy where college and [the AAF] has got him, but they have a problem, I'm assuming, and they don't think they can do that.


B/R: What's the problem?

Coleman: I don't know it for a fact, but I think it's because when we had the umpire lined up in there with the linebackers, they would get run over periodically. They made the decision to move him over into the offensive backfield for safety reasons. So now, if they go and move a guy back in there at that same spot where they took him out of for safety reasons, what happens when one guy gets run over? And the NFL is trying to add an eighth official, but put him somewhere else. Anywhere else you put him he's in the way of other officials. He needs to be in there [near the linebackers] so he can see that stuff in the interior line and you can take the wing guys and make sure they have coverage on receivers. It just gives you better coverage. We've worked eight guys in the preseason, and they always put him somewhere else. They never put him back in there where he was to start with, and that's where he needs to be. But with the speed of the game, the skill of the players and the unbelievable coaches, it's pretty ridiculous that we're officiating with seven guys and everybody else is using eight.


B/R: Do you have any other issues with the rulebook?

Coleman: I think the league has done a pretty good job as far as trying to simplify the rules over the years. The problem we've always had is you have one play in one game that happens, and that particular team wants to put in a special rule to protect you if that was to happen again. Look at the Saints situation. This is one play in one game. I understand it was a big play and it had a big impact on a big game, but they're talking about making huge rule changes because of one play that happened in one game. 

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 19:  Referee Walt Coleman watches a replay during a game between the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 19, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Saints defeated the Redskins 34-31.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

B/R: But has the job become more complicated with recent rule changes?

Coleman: Some of the safety stuff they've put in—which I think is totally necessaryhas made it much more difficult from an officiating standpoint. Did he hit him in the head? Did he hit him with the crown? Did he duck his head? Did he land on the quarterback with all his weight but didn't put his hands down? Did he land on the quarterback and put his hands down? It has gotten much more difficult on some of the safety rules, only because of how fast things happen. But those rules basically are put in to change the way the players play and the coaches coach, and I think, overall, it's worked. The players have changed how they tackle, the defensive backs have changed how they hit receivers, defensive ends and defensive tackles have changed the way they tackle the quarterback. It's worked, but you still have those instances where it's hard to get it right.


B/R: So is that another argument to expand replay or have an eighth official? Or do we have to accept that some of these calls will be missed and that's the collateral damage associated with rule changes designed to protect players? Do we just have to live with the idea that it won't be perfect?

Coleman: From an officiating standpoint, we're expected to be perfect, but that's impossible. Coaches make mistakes, receivers drop balls, defensive linemen line up offside to give a team a first down. People make mistakes, but unfortunately, officials are not allowed to make mistakes. The game's never going to be perfect and it's just a matter of how much change do you want to do to try to make it more perfect? I just think you're taking a chance of really messing up the game, and I think that's one of the problems the NFL has. I think there's a line there between being perfect and having a game that people will want to continue to watch.


B/R: After years of controversy regarding what is or isn't a catch, are you satisfied with the simplified catch rule that was implemented last offseason?

Coleman: Yes, I think we're back to something now that makes sense, but there are always going to be those borderline plays where you can go either way. The problem is that with high-definition television, you can go frame-by-frame and make anything look like anything you want. You can make something look like a catch or make it look incomplete depending on how fast you want to run it. I've had people send me pictures of holding, but it's a still picture! The video has become so good and so clear. I can tell you I am a much better official sitting at home in my chair with my clicker. The players aren't in your way, you've got a clear picture, you can go frame by frame, slow it down. But the game isn't played that way, and it isn't officiated that way. And I don't know that that's how we want to get it. But as far as the catch is concerned, this past season I think we got to a point that everybody was more comfortable with what was a catch and what was incomplete.


FOXBORO, UNITED STATES:  New England Patriots  quarterback Tom Brady (C) takes a hit from Charles Woodson (R) of the Oakland Raiders on a pass attempt in the last two minutes of the game in their AFC playoff 19 January 2002 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  The

B/R: Does the Tuck Rule come up often in your everyday life?

Coleman: Oh yeah. My guess is, as long as Tom Brady is still playing, that particular play is going to come up for discussion. And as long as Coach [Jon] Gruden is involved and some of the Raider players who still aren't happy with what was decided, it'll probably continue to be talked about. But I got it right. Most people didn't like it because they didn't understand the rule or they didn't think the rule was correct. But from our standpoint as officials, we don't get to decide whether we like the rule or whether we think the rule is correct. Our job is just to enforce the rules as they are written and as the league expects us to, and then whatever happens after that is the league's responsibility. 


B/R: Did you always know you'd never work another Raiders game? Was that something you discussed with the league?

Coleman: No, I guess it just happened. It wasn't anything of my doing. You get your games, you get your schedule, you work your games and it just happened that I never worked another Oakland Raiders game. There was never any conversation. No one from the league ever said, 'Walt, you're never gonna work a Raiders game again.' And I never asked. Heck, I was getting good games and getting games every weekend, so it didn't make any difference to me.


B/R: Did you receive any hate mail or threats during your career?

Coleman: Ohhhh [laughs], yeah. I've received a lot of stuff. I've got emails, I've got faxes, I've got phone calls, messages left. I do have an opportunity to do some public speaking and all that stuff is just great material. They all think it's funny, and I tell them it's funny because they didn't send them to them. But it never had an impact on me ... I just understood that's how fans think. They're going to look for conspiracies and all that kind of stuff when all we're trying to do is our jobs, and we are human and we make mistakes. We make honest mistakes, but unfortunately we're in a position where we're not supposed to. As an official, when you're right nobody remembers and when you're wrong nobody forgets.


B/R: Do bad calls linger? Do you wake up on Wednesday still thinking about certain mistakes?

Coleman: Yes, it's terrible. It's not just Wednesday. It's Monday, it's Tuesday, it's Wednesday, it's Thursday, it's Friday, it's Saturday, it's Sunday, it's Monday. It doesn't ever go away. We don't forget those mistakes, even though a lot of people obviously think we do. I don't remember any of my good calls but I can sure tell you all the times I've screwed up. That's how we are and that's what we live with.


Paul Sancya/Associated Press

B/R: Is there one particular call that lingers the most for you?

Coleman: I ruled Jerry Rice out of bounds on a play that should have been a touchdown and would have broken [Steve Largent's career touchdown catch] record. I was wrong. It should have been a touchdown because he moved the ball from his left hand to his right hand and he went out over the pylon. I missed that and they didn't have replay then, so we couldn't fix it. There's been facemask penalties I've called where it looked like one, but it wasn't. I've called roughing the passer and it wasn't a foul. I've got a whole bunch of them that I can rattle off right and left. We'd love to get them all right, but I think in order for us to get almost all of them right is going to change the flow of the game. Still, there oughta be a way to fix it. I don't know what the answer is, I just know there are situations that are really difficult for us. I mean, I had a game this year in Green Bay. There were 13 minutes left in the first quarter and the coach had no more challenges for the rest of the game. That's terrible. Now obviously the coach probably didn't do a very good job, and this was an interim coach [Joe Philbin of the Packers]. But still, you don't know when you're going to need your challenges.

B/R: After all of those years, how difficult was it to strike a balance when it came to being friendly with teams, coaches and players without risking bad optics?

Coleman: Obviously I know the quarterbacks and we'd have conversations during the game, but when you only work a team twice in a season at most, you're just not going to develop a relationship. And I think something all officials are very cognizant of is: when you're on the field, people are watching. So you don't want to have long conversations [because] the integrity of the game lies with the officials. Perception can be very dangerous, so I was very careful about any conversations I had with coaches or players.


B/R: What's next for you? A lot of former referees have gone the television route, is that something you'd want to try?

Coleman: Obviously I'd have to be approached to do anything like that. But I'm still working in our dairy business here in Arkansas, so I still have another job that I'm working Monday through Friday. And obviously with my son in the NFL, that'll give me the opportunity to watch him. I do work with Big 12, Mountain West and Southland college officials at their clinics, and I've been grading and evaluating games for them for several years. So I'll continue to do that and stay involved as far as trying to help officials. I'd like to be able to put back into officiating because it's given me so many great opportunities. I'll try to probably work more with the high school officials in Arkansas, because I haven't been able to do that with the rules being so different.


Some answers were condensed for brevity

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.